OK in 2008, utilities' staffing now under fire
Critics of Connecticut Light & Power, including union officials and state lawmakers, say there should have been more utility crews available to respond to the historic Halloween weekend storm.
Speaker of the House Christopher G. Donovan on Wednesday said he would introduce legislation that could penalize utilities millions of dollars for delayed restoration of power following storm-related outages.
But those calls come three years after the Legislature accepted a report from state regulators that concluded CL&P and United Illuminating had enough staff to handle severe storms.
The focus on the utilities' performance and staffing came on the fifth day of a snowstorm cleanup in which hundreds of thousands of Connecticut residents still are without electricity service. Residents and local government officials have grown increasingly restive, even as utility executives say their own crews and hundreds from out of state are dealing as fast as they can with an unprecedented situation.
Jeffrey Butler, chief operating office of CL&P, said during a Wednesday night news conference in the State Armory that the company had more than 5,000 employees and contractors working on the restoration, including 1,213 line and tree crews, with an additional 100 line crews expected on the job Thursday.
Donovan, during a news conference in the Capitol complex, said the model Massachusetts legislation he plans to follow could fine utilities up to $20 million for delayed responses similar to those in Connecticut.
Dressed in a barn coat, which he vowed to continue wearing until power in the state is fully restored, Donovan, a Meriden Democrat who's running for Congress, said that guidelines would create standards and "reasonable" penalties if electricity restoration is delayed.
However, in 2008, the former state Department of Public Utility Control issued a report to the Legislature indicating that CL&P and UI were adequately staffed for normal line-restoration work.
Lawmakers had asked the DPUC, which has been replaced by the new Public Utility Regulatory Authority, to study the appropriate number of linemen needed for an electric company under both normal conditions, as well as major storms.
But rather than coming up with any standards or actual staffing minimums for lawmakers to consider, DPUC in its final April 2008 report, endorsed the status quo.
"It does not make financial sense to hire enough line workers to allow for the manpower necessary to perform outages restoration that results from severe storm conditions," the report said. "The existing system, relying on contractors and regional mutual aid to supplement the existing work force, has proven reliable. A sheer large volume of line workers is unlikely to significantly improve outage restoration time after major storms, since restoration must be accomplished in a deliberate, step-by-step manner."
Former Rep. Steve Fontana, D-North Haven, at the time co-chairman of the Legislature's Energy and Technology Committee, said Wednesday, "It was clear to me if we were going to make significant change, we'd have to order in statute utilities maintain a level of manpower. That was something we didn't feel we had legislative muscle to accomplish."
Richard Sobolewski, a 25-year veteran with the state's ratepayer advocacy agency, the Office of Consumer Counsel, doubts any other states require utility staffing levels because it would amount to micromanagement of private companies.
Sobolewski said staffing is reviewed by state utility officials when the utilities try to justify rate increases.
As recently as Sept. 26, Sobolewski, testifying during a legislative hearing on response to Tropical Storm Irene, said it made no sense for the utilities to "keep a large surplus of line workers employed in anticipation of a future major storm," and the current level of line workers "appears to be adequate to handle the companies normal workload and construction budget."
The DPUC report apparently didn't sway everyone. Frank Cirillo, business manager for the Waterbury-based International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 420, which works for CL&P, believes the utilities are understaffed and rely too often on contractors.
But Cirillo does not have much faith in lawmakers' making good on their threats to hold utilities accountable.
"In two weeks when this is over and everybody's got lights, it's going to be business as usual until the next storm," Cirillo said.